Wild wild West: Ranking the playoff hopefuls

NHL

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If the NHL’s Eastern Conference is thought to be an arms race with six powers loading up on weapons that could seismically disrupt the balance of the league, the Western Conference is often viewed as a zany mess of teams that could knock over an exhausted opponent in the Stanley Cup final.

Here’s an assessment of the threat each Western Conference playoff hopeful poses, ranked and broken into tiers.

*All stats current as of March 23

The Avalanche and Oilers look like the most imposing teams in the NHL's Western Conference. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Avalanche and Oilers look like the most imposing teams in the NHL’s Western Conference. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

One last hurrah

10) Nashville Predators

Nashville perhaps realized too late that its core wouldn’t be good enough to win consistently in the Western Conference. The final 13 games of the season may be best spent remembering the peak of the Roman Josi years, as the Predators would be wise to begin a rebuild this summer. Juuse Saros has been downright incredible for the Predators and Josi is having another stellar season but unless a miracle happens, the season is quickly approaching an end.

9) Calgary Flames

Calgary has been arguably the most disappointing team in the NHL this season after retooling its lineup through the Matthew Tkachuk-Jonathan Huberdeau trade. Tkachuk once again looks like one of the NHL’s best players and though MacKenzie Weegar has been one of the league’s premier defensive defensemen, it looks like the Panthers clearly won that deal, as Huberdeau simply hasn’t come close to matching his all-world production last year.

All about the goaltending

8) Winnipeg Jets

7) Minnesota Wild

We’ve grouped these teams together because they’re both relying on the same formula: elite goaltending is their calling card and should offset subpar offensive play. Let’s start with the Jets.

Winnipeg’s method of operation hasn’t changed at all. Connor Hellebuyck is a down-ballot Vezina contender and ranks fourth in goals saved above average, per MoneyPuck. Once again, Hellebuyck is carrying a Jets team that is anemic offensively and though Josh Morrissey should also be a down-ballot Norris candidate, the core of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois won’t scare anyone.

Hellebuyck will need a career-best performance if the Jets are going to make a meaningful dent in the West, given that they’ve been the sixth-worst team in the NHL since Feb. 1.

If you thought Winnipeg’s offense was tepid, at least it’s not cold like Minnesota. The Wild rank 29th in 5-on-5 goals, per Natural Stat Trick, while breakout star Filip Gustavsson ranks fifth in goals saved above average, consistently bailing his team out of trouble.

You can digest Minnesota’s scoring troubles a little bit easier, given it employs a defense-heavy system and is one of the better shot-suppression teams in the league. You have to worry about Kirill Kaprizov’s health, too. Even if he returns from injury, he’s the only genuine star the Wild have and the lack of firepower will be their downfall.

Sophomore bump

6) Seattle Kraken

We’re sure you’ve heard of a sophomore slump but for the Kraken, the entire season has instead been a sophomore bump. During their inaugural season, the Kraken were incapable of scoring goals and boy, what a difference a year makes. Seattle leads the NHL with 178 goals at 5-on-5, Calder favourite Matty Beniers has emerged as a franchise-caliber player and the Kraken have balanced scoring throughout the lineup. Vince Dunn and Adam Larsson may be the NHL’s most underrated defense pairing and Dunn leads the Kraken with 57 points.

So why aren’t we higher on the Kraken? They’re getting sub-par goaltending across the board. Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones both have posted sub-.900 save percentages, allowing more than three goals per game. Jones has been the real culprit and we know goaltending is the most critical element for a sustainable run towards the Cup. Will the Kraken’s superior offense and analytic profile be enough to stun the West?

Any Given Sunday

5) Dallas Stars

Jason Robertson may earn a few runner-up votes for the Hart Trophy, while Jamie Benn is having one of the best seasons of his career. Dallas has a ton of balanced scoring options throughout the lineup with Roope Hintz, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski and Wyatt Johnston ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Miro Heiskanen is a phenomenal skater who contributes to every aspect of the Stars’ game and Jake Oettinger has played well enough to reason that he could steal a game or two this spring.

There’s some room for trepidation about the Stars’ playoff bid, namely that they’re not necessarily elite in any category. Dallas is just above average in shot creation and shot suppression, we’d rank Oettinger as the fifth-best goaltender among Western playoff teams and he’s getting worn out from his regular season workload. On any given Sunday, this Stars team is good enough to beat the West’s best, but we can’t rank them above the following four teams.

No Country for Old Men

4) Vegas Golden Knights

3) Los Angeles Kings

You have to say OK, I’ll be part of this world.

Since Feb. 1, the Kings and Golden Knights have been the NHL’s two best teams — Vegas is tied with Boston, but we’ve already spent approximately a gazillion words on the Bruins’ otherworldly season. You can manipulate selective endpoints, but it’s telling that the Golden Knights and Kings are playing their best hockey of the year down the stretch, and it could be a precursor to the playoffs.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Golden Knights have retooled and have the anatomy of a contender. Alec Martinez won two Stanley Cups with the Kings in 2012 and 2014, scoring the Cup-clinching goal in the latter victory; Chandler Stephenson won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018; Alex Pietrangelo won one with the Blues in 2019. This was before the Golden Knights added even more playoff experience by acquiring two-time champion Jonathan Quick, providing him with a change of scenery and an opportunity for vengeance against Kings general manager Rob Blake.

They have balanced scoring through the lineup with genuine star power in Jack Eichel. And they have a long list of veterans — Phil Kessel, Mark Stone (out indefinitely on long-term injured reserve) and Shea Theodore among them — who are itching to lift the trophy for the first time.

Vegas’s playoff bid is likely contingent upon netminder Logan Thompson, who has excelled during his rookie season. This is a loaded, veteran team and anything short of a Cup appearance could be viewed as a disappointment. As it goes, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are no country for old men.

As for the Kings, they’ve stretched their two-timeline ambitions out to near-perfection. Drew Doughty may garner down-ballot Norris Trophy votes, Anze Kopitar isn’t a Selke candidate but he and Phillip Danualt can blanket any top forward they’re assigned to. Los Angeles has five 20-goal scorers and Joonas Korpisalo has quietly been among the NHL’s best goaltenders.

Doughty and Kopitar are the only holdovers from the two Cup-winning teams, while the youth movement has paid off, with several under-25 players making their first playoff run. Have the Kings arrived too quickly? Or is age just a number, with the steady guidance of Doughty and Kopitar enough to continue the Kings’ torrid pace post-February in an attempt to lift the trophy for the third time since 2012?

Time to start building legacy

2) Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid is having the best individual season of the new millennium and he’s getting meaningful help, too. Leon Draisaitl is second with 110 points, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (33 goals, 88 points, T10th in the NHL) and Zach Hyman (30 goals, 75 points, 25th in the NHL) have provided the Oilers with the ancillary firepower to sustain their two superstars. You can’t take a penalty against the Oilers, either, as they’re converting on the power play at a league-best 31.5 percent clip and giving McDavid any time to operate is a fatal mistake.

If the stereotype that the Oilers are a two-man team — now, a four-man team — has existed for the entirety of McDavid’s career, it’s playing out again. Outside of Edmonton’s core four, it isn’t receiving any meaningful secondary offense. The Jack Campbell experiment has failed miserably, so it’s on rookie Stuart Skinner to keep the Oilers out of shootouts. Edmonton’s goaltending has been its Achilles heel and there’s going to be mounting pressure on Skinner.

Let’s be clear here: this is McDavid’s moment. He’s been the best player in the NHL for years now and he’s ascended into another tier this season. This is the stage of McDavid’s career that’s similar to the years when some NBA writers took LeBron James to task for never winning a championship. LeBron did steer the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, where they got thumped by a more experienced San Antonio Spurs side before he eventually won four titles. And that’s the expectation for McDavid now. That comes with the territory when you’re this good, this fast.

Defending champs back at the top

1) Colorado Avalanche

A championship hangover can evidently last about 60 games. Since then, the Avalanche are rolling over their competition and are ready for their title defense. They may get Gabriel Landeskog back in time for the playoffs and the fact they’re playing this well without their captain speaks volumes.

Colorado’s defining advantage is its speed on the blue line, with five defenders who are capable of creating magic on the rush. Cale Makar and Devon Toews are the league’s best defense pair, controlling nearly 59 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5, while Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram are all afforded the ability to make improvisational reads at the blue line. You’ll never know where the threat is coming from as the Avalanche attempt to play at hyperspeed.

Byram spoke about this concept prior to their 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 15.

“I feel like I’ve said it quite a few times: we’re pretty lucky that (Jared Bednar) and the rest of the coaching staff gives us the green light to enter the rush as much as possible,” Byram told Yahoo Sports. “It makes it fun to play, it’s exciting to watch. It’s nice. You know, whenever you have an opportunity to go, you’re able to. We’re pretty lucky, especially with the D-core we have, it makes us pretty hard to play against.”

Mikko Rantanen carried the Avalanche through the dog days and now he’s on pace for a 55-goal campaign. Rantanen’s combination of speed, power and playmaking is nearly unmatched, to say nothing of Nathan MacKinnon, whose explosiveness stands out during every shift. The same could be said of Makar, whose speed makes him a multidimensional weapon to account for.

Colorado is getting ancillary scoring throughout the lineup and its pace is making it nearly impossible for opponents to generate quality looks. The champions are connecting at a 25 percent clip on the power play, the fourth-best total in the league. There are no breaks.

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev has also been excellent this season for the Avalanche, ranking seventh in goals saved above expected — ahead of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin, for context. Colorado proved it could win a Cup with league-average goaltending last year and Georgiev is trending towards star territory this year. The defending champions are rounding into form and are showing no weaknesses. God help the rest of the West.

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